To get us all into the right surreal humour for Terry Gilliam weekend, Susan Omand remembers a childhood of violin-playing gemstones, whistling aliens and torches that open wormholes to fantasy lands...
Way back in the mists of time, well the early 1970's, there was a little girl who watched television. Not for her the slapstick humour of Crackerjack (*waits for everyone to shout CRACKERJACK!*) or the sticky backed plastic of Blue Peter, for she lived in a world of imagination, of fantasy worlds, outlandish stories and time travellers in fezzes (no, not that one).
Yup, kids' TV in the 70's was obviously born out of the minds of adults that didn't quite remember the 60's even though they were there. It was a time in TV when children were allowed to have imaginations, to believe the unbelievable and to experience a world where not everything was cosy and familiar.
The obvious candidate is the Magic Roundabout. Originally from France, the series was imported to the UK by Eric Thomson (yes, actress Emma Thomson's dad) whereby he completely rewrote the scripts just using the visuals without basing it on the original story of le Manege Enchante at all. Many years later I watched Dougal and the Blue Cat - the original 1970 film of the Magic Roundabout and it is even freakier than the series. Buxton, a giant blue cat lands unannounced in the garden and is guided by the hypnotic, disembodied Blue Voice to perform tasks to prove his worth. The images are bright and disorientating, the sounds mesmerising and the floating masks in the nightmare room.... *shudder*
But there are others that are less blatant, but no less weird, in their psychedelia.
Ludwig was one. Named after Ludwig van Beethoven, whose music played in the background of each episode, Ludwig was an egg shaped gemstone "creature" that lived in the forest. He was originally brought to the forest by the magpies from who knows where but he decided to stay in the woods and observe, like some kind of scientist. From little doors in his egg shaped body he produced everyday objects, which he gave to the animal residents, a pair of magpies, a hedgehog family, an owl and a squirrel, to observe what they did with them. He then played his beautiful, pastoral music as a reward. This cartoon was unusual in that none of the main characters do not talk as such nor were overly humanised, indeed Ludwig had no facial features at all and only occasionally limbs protruded from the egg shaped body. The only human in evidence is the narrator, who can only be seen as a deerstalker and binoculars watching the action from a distance, observing the observer in a paranoia inducing big brother type way. Not so much surreal or psychedelic as just plain weird.
And then there were the Clangers. The pink knitted creatures that lived on and in a small blue planet, whose craters were covered by dustbin lids. They ate soup supplied the Soup Dragon from a cave deep in the planet and were watched over by the iron chicken in the sky. The whole dialogue was in whistles and we understood every word...er... note. Even if you ignore the froglets, who travelled around in a top hat, and the sentient musical trees, it's a bit...um...odd. And I loved it! I haven't yet plucked up the courage to watch the remake although I am heartened by two things - it's still the same stop motion animation and the narration is done by the wonderful Michael Palin.
There's also Mr Benn, the bowler-hatted business man who visited a fancy dress shop, run by a shop-keeper who has the accolade of being the first in my mind to make fezzes cool. With each outfit Mr Benn tried on, came a new story of Knights or Pirates or Spacemen - the space race was still big news back in the day. Each time, the story would end with the shop-keeper arriving in whatever scene was being played out to take back the costume and leave Mr Benn back in the changing room with a small memento of his travels. There were only 14 episodes ever made.
On the other channel (ITV) Jamie and the Magic Torch was a huge favourite. With a soundtrack that sounds almost like The Who could have sung it, this cartoon featured a boy called Jamie and his dog Wordsworth and their night-time adventures in Cuckoo land, which they got to via a portal in the bedroom floor, opened by the magic torch. They slid down a long red and yellow helter skelter to bounce out of a tree onto a trampoline in cuckoo land. The characters in Cuckoo land were just as Cuckoo as the name suggests, Mr. Boo, who flew around in his 'submachine', was obsessed with counting things. Police Officer Gotcha rode a unicycle and ate truncheons while being tricked by the YooHoo Bird. Strumpers Plunkett played tunes on his trumpet nose to BullyBundy, the show business rabbit. And Wellybob the cat did everything backwards which is how Jamie and Wordsworth got back to bed every time, backwards up the helter skelter. Err... yes.
There's so many more I have missed out - The Herbs, with Parsley the Lion and his frantic pal Dill the Dog, Crystal Tipps, the silent purple haired little girl that lived with her dog Allistair and was fascinated by rainbows, Bagpuss with Professor Yaffle the woodpecker and the mice who lived on the mouse-organ and mended things, Chorlton (a happiness dragon) and the tricycle-like Wheelies who fought against Fenella the Kettle Witch...
Nope, they sure don't make them like that any more.... even though they are still trying.